Williams' star: Hamilton Island
Williams' star: Hamilton Island

The accommodation industry is mourning the passing of visionary and trailblazer Keith Williams, the man responsible for two of Queensland’s leading developments – Hamilton Island and Sea World,  at the age of 82.

Williams’ entrepreneurial career spanned more than 40 years, with the man also responsible for Port Hinchinbrook retiring only a couple of years ago in 2008.

Hamilton Island was one project he was incredibly well-known for and owner Bob Oatley said the team was deeply saddened by the passing of a “pioneer”.

“Our thoughts go out to Keith’s family,” Oatley said.  “We are just thankful that Keith and his wife Thea were able to visit us recently and spend some final days on the Island he loved. It was the first time in more than a decade that he had the opportunity to visit the resort.

“Queensland and Australia are indebted to Keith Williams for his many achievements. He was a true pioneer and legend and the tourism industry has lost one of its most passionate supporters with his passing.  On Hamilton Island we are proud to continue the vision that Keith began so many years ago,” Oatley said.

Williams owned and operated Hamilton Island between 1975 and 1996.

He first became aware of the Island in the mid-1970s when he was enjoying a cruise through the Whitsundays aboard his motor yacht.  What impressed him most was that it had one of the very few north-facing beaches to be found anywhere on the east coast of Australia.

He made some inquiries about the Island, and within a very short time he and business associate, Bryan Byrt had purchased the grazing lease that gave them ownership of the entire five-square kilometre (two-square mile) Island. Sadly, Byrt passed away in 1978 and Williams abandoned plans for establishing a grazing property on the island, instead deciding to turn it into a tourist destination.

Williams gained government approval to commence the development of the Hamilton Island Marina, followed by construction of the Resort in 1982.

He also built a commercial airport on the Island making the destination easily accessible for holidaymakers – still a great asset to this day.   By the early 1980s he could lay claim to Hamilton Island being Australia’s premier tropical island resort destination. In 1996 Hamilton Island became a public company with the major shareholder being Bankers Trust.

The Island was acquired by current owners, the Oatley family in 2003. It was when Keith Williams was in the early stages of the development of the resort that noted Australian winemaker Bob Oatley was cruising through the islands aboard a yacht and just happened to sail past Hamilton Island: “I didn’t go ashore, but I could recognise the potential of the island,” Oatley said.

“It was the very early days of the development; they were building the airstrip and the harbour at the time, and there was a lot of activity going on. I remember saying ‘what a great project that is,’ never thinking that one day I’d be the owner.”

The Oatley family has invested over $300 million since they purchased Hamilton Island which includes the development of luxury resort qualia, the Hamilton Island Yacht Club and Villas and the 18 hole Peter Thomson designed Golf Club on Dent Island.

“When he visited recently, Keith was excited to see all that we had created at Hamilton Island,” Bob Oatley said.  “I think he was proud of what we had done to continue his early vision for the Island as a leading tourism destination for Australian and international visitors.”

The Accommodation Association of Australia’s CEO Richard Munro said the industry had lost one of its finest.

“Australia’s accommodation industry and tourism more broadly has lost an outstanding trail-blazer in Keith Williams.

“His is a great Australian story – rising from humble beginnings through sheer hard work to become one of the nation’s great tourism entrepreneurs.

“Keith’s vision to develop Hamilton Island and Sea World, among many other notable projects, has left a lasting legacy on tourism and the Australian economy as a whole.

“It’s not overstating his influence to say that just about anyone who has been to Queensland for a holiday has been a beneficiary of Keith’s foresight.

“He had a great character that endeared him to many Australians and visitors to our country from overseas.

“The accommodation industry and indeed our entire nation is a much poorer place for his passing.

“On behalf of the industry, the Accommodation Association extends its condolences to Keith’s family and friends.”

Queensland Tourism Industry Council (QTIC) CEO Daniel Gschwind said Williams’ impact on the tourism industry will be long remembered.

“Keith’s determination and vision turned Queensland into a global tourism destination, and the entire industry will miss one of its true pioneers,” Gschwind said.

“It was his drive that put not only regions like the Gold Coast and the Whitsundays on the tourism map, but Queensland and Australia as a whole.

“Our industry depends on visionaries and entrepreneurs like Keith who have the capacity to image and create an exciting future for tourism.

“Keith Williams leaves a great legacy not just for Queensland but for this country. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family, wife Thea and children Ben and Rebecca.”